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Arnold School of Public Health


COMD’s Kenn Apel receives nearly $1.4 million to develop literacy assessment tool for students in grades 1-6

June 14, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Kenn Apel, professor and chair for the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD), has been awarded a three-year, $1,385,473 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The funding will support Project MATRS (Morphological Awareness Test for Reading and Spelling).

Internationally renowned for his literacy expertise, Apel is a part of the COMD department’s literacy core, a group of four tenure-track faculty members dedicated to advancing literacy research and clinical treatment. South Carolina has the 13th highest rate of functional illiteracy in the country. Nationwide, two-thirds of fourth and eighth grade students are at or below the basic level of reading and writing, respectively. Though generally under-recognized as a public health issue, literacy impacts access to healthcare, career opportunities, social support, and other important factors (e.g., academic success) that impact health outcomes.

Educators and literacy researchers have long studied the best ways to address their common concern—how to improve the literacy skills of students who are struggling with reading and writing. Toward this effort, these groups have recently turned their attention toward addressing students’ morphological awareness skills.

“Broadly defined, morphological awareness refers to the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in language,” explains Apel. “These units include base words and affixes such as –ly, re-, -ness.”

Recent studies have demonstrated an important connection between literacy skills and these building blocks of language. This research has shown that morphological awareness makes unique contributions to reading and writing, and interventions related to this emerging area lead to clinically important gains in morphological awareness and literacy skills.

However promising, a critical issue has emerged from these studies. “There is a lack of a consistent and comprehensive definition for morphological awareness,” says Apel. “The inconsistent and incomplete definition has lead to morphological awareness measures that are imperfect, difficulties when comparing results across investigations due to the different tasks used, uncertainty about the dimensionality of morphological awareness, and potential under-identification of students with morphological awareness deficits.”

Project MATRS will address these issues by providing a clinically supported and unified foundation for morphological awareness research. Through three studies across three years, the project will develop a comprehensive morphological awareness assessment tool for students in grades 1-6.

“By the end of this project, we will have a reliable, valid measure of morphological awareness that will benefit both researchers and practitioners,” says Apel. “The enhanced ability to accurately identify weaknesses in students’ morphological awareness may help explain students’ difficulties in decoding and understanding complex words during reading that educators then can specifically address to improve comprehension at the word, sentence, and passage levels—ultimately improving literacy skills for those who struggle.”


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Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders grows literacy expertise